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The Meaning of Transpersonal Experience

Fellow weary travelers, what are we running from? Perhaps you already know what I’m talking about. At least in a vague sense, many of us, if we’re honest, have had some underlying sense of avoiding or defending against difficult emotions. Our minds are not all that comfortable with some parts of ourselves. And this tugs at our attention when our attention is not focused on a task, a story, a person, a tv, or whatever other sense object may be before us. This world is full of distractions away from this silent little secret. I do not want to make a problem out of all of the wonderful variety of things to focus on and enjoy in this life. They can be quite fulfilling and satisfying, but not for all that long, in my experience.

Transpersonal therapy

You may have heard the terms that point to what I am writing about here, such as an ‘existential/spiritual/identity crisis’. What do these terms refer to? The gnawing, knocking presence of what I’m calling ‘the silent little secret’ about ourselves. That there just may not be, underneath all of our self-concepts and identity, an actually separate one called ‘me’ in there. Our denial or turning away from this can have a rather insidious impact; it can penetrate our inner experience in different ways, from ill-at-easeness or mild restlessness and boredom, to anxiety, depression, or full-on psychosis. The stuff of “presenting problems” which have brought so many of us to a therapy room! Or to our knees in prayer, or to the brink of despair.

So what is this transpersonal secret all about?

There are various questions we can use as gateways into transpersonal experience, if we are willing to stop and get curious about what is here when we don’t look outside ourselves, or to a thought. There is a whole ‘world’ here, and by and large in our culture, it is missed in our frantic search to find meaning and fulfillment ‘out there’. One such question is ‘What is looking out of these eyes?’ Or, ‘What is aware of these thoughts?’ Or the most stripped down and to the point of them all, ‘What am I?’ The trick with using these questions is not to go up into thought and find ‘the correct answer’ or to repeat some insight from some wise person from aeons ago. Rather, the point is to be stopped alive in your tracks, and to be dropped down into your direct experience. When we don’t operate on auto-pilot and reach for a thought or an idea to tell us what we are, a funny thing can tend to happen. Usually, if we’re honest, we finally can come to that place of ‘I don’t know.’ And this simple, quiet ‘I don’t know’ is an entrance into the realm of the transpersonal.

Transpersonal is just a word, but a word that is thrown around more and more and has maybe lost some of its potency. This word seems like a suitcase worth unpacking, because what is actually inside may not be merely a definition of the word, but an experience of it, and of life. Transpersonal’s definition is ‘… consciousness beyond the limits of personal identity’. It is this very ‘beyondness’, and what our minds tend to associate with that, where there is great potential for misunderstanding. The mind can run away with this subtle ‘out there’ orientation and go and search for what is beyond our everyday experience in a way that does not bring more presence. Rather, I find again and again that this ‘transpersonal’ orientation of experience is closer than the auto-pilot mode of living in our thoughts, which can have that ‘once removed’ feel. What is not once-removed? What is not ‘beyond’ our self-image but, rather, even closer and more real? What if it, you yourself, can only be lived. Not known as a concept, but lived and breathed as some kind of nothing that is, nonetheless, something. Perhaps just not a separate something. It’s here, undeniably awake and aware. You yourself, right now reading these words, are it, can it be truly defined or grasped?

Maybe all attempts at defining what transpersonal is are destined for failure, but that doesn’t mean that questions used as gateways of inquiry are not useful. If they didn’t have that capacity, then to be honest, I would not likely have been inspired to write this article! I have a desire to reorient and redirect the use of the word transpersonal, and how it is used and understood. And, my real desire for this comes from my own growing sense that the raw aliveness that we seek to experience is an ‘inside job’ and not fundamentally somewhere ‘out there’. Ultimately, many of us are hiding out on the inside, from ourselves. At least this is how I see it.

How do you see it? If you don’t agree, what is present for you when the words and concepts fall away, if even for just a moment? What is this moment made of?

Please listen to this  12 minute guided meditation I’ve made to accompany this article.

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Tom Rhodes

Tom Rhodes

Tom Rhodes is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. He specializes in working with people who suffer from anxiety or whose very identity is being called into question by the current circumstances of their life.

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